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Photo: Sasha Gusov/Alamy
Boris Giltburg … and a composite image showing his fiercest critics.

Becoming a professional musician requires dedication no matter what the situation, and you have to admire the perseverance of all musicians. But sometimes the dedication is so completely over-the-top it deserves an Olympic medal.

Pianist Boris Giltburg survived to tell his own story at the Guardian.

“There I was in a verdant valley, playing an open-air concert to 2,000 people, with snow-capped mountains rising off in the distance behind the stage. …

“As night fell, the brightly lit piano became a shining beacon in the surrounding blackness. It also became, I now realise, an immensely attractive object to various heat- and light-loving creatures. Shortly after the opening of Chopin’s Ballade No 1, a thin black insect landed on the keyboard. Before long, it was joined by another, then a few more, and by the time I got to the whirlwind of passages in the coda, I was fighting a mounting panic – as there were insects everywhere. …

“In the interval, the promoters sprayed me all over with insect repellant. It made me very sticky – and it seemed to matter not a bit to the crawlies occupying the keyboard. If anything, they seemed to actually be attracted to it, with several now landing on my ears and a few others exploring the nape of my neck. …

And then there are all my encounters with bats.

“Bats like to live in theatres, particularly in old Italian-style ones that provide them with comfortable rafters above the stage, and plenty of flying space in the darkness above. I discovered this fact during a rehearsal in one such theatre, when loud, neurotic squeaks erupted above me as I started playing. ‘Ah, the bats!’ the promoters said with smiles, in reply to my slightly concerned questions. ‘They’ve lived here since always. Don’t worry – you can’t hear them from the hall.’ …

“It turned out that having had the theatre as their residence for ages, the bats had become very cultured – and also very opinionated. They liked the Rachmaninov preludes well enough and listened politely. The darkening mood of Prokofiev’s 8th sonata, however, put them into a state of nervous agitation. They clearly didn’t like my take on it and I heard them fluttering above me, conversing in worried squeaks.

“Then came Ravel’s La Valse, darker still. That turned out to be too much. At first there was ominous silence from above but then in the coda, as the demise of the Old World inescapably approached in rising waves, first one and then many black-brown signs of the bats’ displeasure rained down on to the stage.

“[It] fell from above on my hands and the very brightly lit keyboard. The first made me jump – literally — and I pulled my hands off the keys for a split second. I then managed to go on, all the while noticing in growing discomfort and disbelief the continued delivery of the bats’ verdict on my performance. I think that was the bat equivalent of zero stars.

“After the concert, I was livid with indignation and shock. I expected the same sort of reaction from the promoters, but they took a much more pragmatic and good-natured view of the situation. Bats lived in theatres, they said, and that was that. Apparently they saw the discharge from their vantage point in the hall and thought it quite funny.

“They also told me of a previous attempt to curtail the bats’ activity (and population) with the help of an owl – but the owl proved to be just as, well, opinionated as the bats. It had nothing against Ravel, but seemed to show a particular dislike of the cello, which it let be known in no uncertain terms. After two cellos and their adjoining players had to be wiped clean, the owl was dismissed, and the bats had free rein to continue their musical education.

“I go back to that theatre almost every year. The audience is wonderfully enthusiastic, the acoustics clear and carrying, and the promoters’ hospitality among the warmest I’ve ever experienced. But I still haven’t been able to win over the bats. During my last visit, they pooh-poohed the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto.”

More here.

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Photo: Pinecone.org
Becoming a musician should not stress students out. That’s why students at a music school in Manchester, England, are encouraged to take time for a well-rounded life.

Our niece is a music teacher and youth orchestra conductor in North Carolina. Her husband and all three of her children are also accomplished musicians. One thing that’s hard to remember now is that when she was studying music in college, she was very stressed out.

That’s something a music school in Manchester, England, is determined to prevent as it launches its new wellness program.

Photo: UIG/Getty Images 
The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, which has about 800 students, is promoting physical and mental wellness for students.

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Sally Weale writes at the Guardian, “The Royal Northern College of Music has become the first conservatoire to appoint a lecturer in musicians’ health and wellbeing, to help equip students to deal with the pressures of a career in music.

“The number of students reporting mental health concerns has risen sharply across higher education in recent years, and the RNCM is concerned its students have to deal with the additional pressure of concerts and recitals as well as long hours of practice.

“Sara Ascenso, a clinical psychologist and trained pianist, will start at the college in January. Her role will include lecturing and research, and she will also develop the health and wellbeing provision across the college, ensuring it is tailored to musicians’ needs.

“Kathy Hart, the RNCM students’ union president, said … ‘The work needed to build such a difficult career can come at a price, both physically and psychologically. … The more work we put in, the higher the stakes become – and the more devastating the impact if we are held back by injury or mental health struggles.’

“The Manchester college plans to lay on extra counselling sessions for students, particularly when performance pressures are at their peak, plus wellbeing activities such as yoga to help prevent injury. The RNCM also intends to extend its community outreach so more students get to work with people in need.

Ascenso said: ‘We want our students to learn how to make music with excellence, but also how to live fulfilling lives as musicians and as human beings more generally.’

More at the Guardian, here.

Photo: Mark Bell
A relaxed family recital communicates even to the dogs that music is something to enjoy.
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The Sunnyside Social Club performs at the celebration for the completion of the Second Avenue Subway in Manhattan

Photo: Elizabeth Shafiroff/Reuters
The Sunnyside Social Club had to pass a rigorous audition process to get into the subway busker program in New York.

One of the few things I miss about commuting to a job is the daily possibility of great music in the subway. I would never know what I was going to get. Some performers were bad. Some were so fantastic I felt like letting a couple trains go by so I could listen.

The MBTA doesn’t require much more than signing up and paying a fee to be a busker, but in New York City, it’s a different story. You have to pass a tough audition.

Claire Bryan writes at CityLab, “Each year, hundreds of musicians vie to see their name not in lights, but in pink, on a banner indicating they’ve earned official status to perform in New York City’s subway stations. …

“By a March deadline this year, MTA MUSIC received 309 applications with audio samples and selected 82 finalists to audition. On May 15, the 31st annual auditions opened in Grand Central Station’s Vanderbilt Hall, a passageway from the station to 42nd Street. On that morning, the hall, with its 48-foot ceilings and five chandeliers, was filled with a myriad of musical scales: Behind a black felt curtain, cellos, French horns, a Kurdish hammered dulcimer guitar, and vocalists, were warming up. One of the finalists, the all-female a cappella group Mezzo, took to the stage.

“The women of Mezzo launched into ‘Dreams’ by The Cranberries. They had just five minutes to prove to the judges that they deserved the right to serenade people in the subways.

“Since 1985, the MTA Arts and Design program, of which MTA MUSIC is a part, vets musicians to find the best subway-appropriate performance groups to enhance New Yorkers’ commutes. MTA MUSIC Senior Manager Lydia Bradshaw says the judges look for quality, musical variety, cultural diversity, representation of the culture and people of New York, and appropriateness for the transit environment. …

” ‘The thing about it in the subway is you have no stage, you have no backline, you have no stagehands, you must just create the space right here,’ said Sean Grisson, a Cajun cellist who has been in the program since 1987 and a judge since 2013. For Grisson, whether or not performers are chosen comes down to if the performance is something that ‘you would want to pause and make you reflect as you go about your busy New York existence.’

“Once admitted to the program, musicians must call in and book slots. … Performers receive a personalized banner with their name and the MTA MUSIC bright magenta logo. Musician’s names and contact information also gets added to MTA MUSIC’s website — a feature that can help groups land events.

“But anyone can play in the subway as long as they follow MTA’s Transit Rules of Conduct. … MTA employees and music performance groups believe that registered groups deserve their spot. ‘One of the benefits of being in the program is sort of having that permission to book and be at more visible spots,’ Grisson said.

“Which doesn’t mean that non-sanctioned performers can’t play — they just aren’t afforded the security and institutional support MTA MUSIC performers receive. …

“MTA Press Officer Amanda Kwan said that if an MTA MUSIC group calls in, signs up, shows up, and there’s a non-MTA MUSIC group there, the issue is often resolved between the musicians. …

“Grissom, the judge who has also been performing in the subways since 1983, said the competition to enter the program is challenging and he has come to appreciate the MTA MUSIC program much more.

“But he adds: ‘I’ve never had issues [with the authorities] believe it or not. I always feel that street performing or subway performing is kind of Darwinism at its best.’ Grissom said.”

More.

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sheku-kanneh-mason-2-credit-lars-borgesPhoto: Lars Borges
As of February 2, 18-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason was 2018’s best-selling British debut artist – across all genres.

Here’s another story celebrating a young person who thinks differently and opens a new path. He’s a musician in the United Kingdom who refuses to limit himself to one kind of music — and shows that one can excel in different genres.

Katy Wright at Rhinegold Publishing reports, “Sheku Kanneh-Mason has become this year’s best-selling British debut artist – across all genres – to enter the Top 20 in the Official UK Albums Chart with his album Inspiration.

“The release, which features repertoire ranging from Shostakovich to Bob Marley, has entered the main chart at No. 18, and is at No. 1 in the classical chart.

“The 18-year-old is the first BBC Young Musician to break into the pop chart with his debut album, as well as the youngest cellist ever to reach the Top 20 and the youngest classical artist to break into the Official UK Albums Chart in almost a decade. …

“The album … features Shostakovich’s first cello concerto – the piece which propelled Sheku to fame as the first black winner of BBC Young Musician in the competition’s 38-year history – and Kanneh-Mason’s own arrangement of Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’.

“Kanneh-Mason is the top streamed young classical artist, having received 2.5 million streams on Spotify alone.”

Wikipedia adds some biographical details. “Sheku Kanneh-Mason grew up in Nottingham, England. He is the third eldest of the seven children of Stuart Mason (a business manager) and Kadiatu Kanneh (a former university lecturer), and began playing the cello at the age of six, having briefly played the violin. At the age of nine, he passed the Grade 8 cello examination with the highest marks in the UK, and won the Marguerite Swan Memorial Prize. …

“In 2015, he and his siblings were competitors on Britain’s Got Talent as The Kanneh-Masons. He won the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year contest in May 2016, later telling The Observer that appearing on Britain’s Got Talent had been ‘a good experience for getting used to performing in front of lots of people, with cameras and interviews.’ …

“Kanneh-Mason is a member of the Chineke! Orchestra, which was founded by Chi-chi Nwanoku for black and minority ethnic classical musicians. …

“In 2016, Kanneh-Mason told The Guardian‘s Tom Service that ‘Chineke! is a really inspiring project. I rarely go to a concert and see that kind of diversity in the orchestra. Or in the audience. Having the orchestra will definitely change the culture.’ …

“In January 2018, it was reported that Kanneh-Mason had donated £3,000 to his former secondary school, enabling ten other pupils to continue their cello lessons.” More at Wikipedia, here.

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Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
A stage in the back of a U-Haul (paid for in part by Fresh Sound Foundation) allows the Grammy Award-winning Parker Quartet to perform anywhere.

Classical musicians who believe their music will bring a blessing to whoever hears it have been presenting in offbeat locales in the Greater Boston area. Tomorrow, too. Malcolm Gay has the story at the Boston Globe.

“The 17-foot U-Haul truck sat parked in an empty field, ringed by trees. With the touch of a button, a roof-mounted winch whirred into action, unspooling cable as a fan-shaped stage lowered like a drawbridge from the rear. The U-Haul’s modified rear doors acted as a band shell, flanking the stage to project sound, and a custom-made sail, supported by deep-sea fishing rods, projected as a visor from above.

“Fifteen minutes later and the vehicle, dubbed the Music Haul, was a fully functioning stage — a 21st-century gypsy caravan that will bring live performances to the streets and schools of Greater Boston, Sunday through Tuesday.

“ ‘It really is more boat than truck,’ said Catherine Stephan, executive director of the Yellow Barn music center. ‘We got to know RV dealerships really well.’ …

“ ‘It’s supposed to be as close to magic as possible,’ said architect John Rossi, one of the traveling venue’s principal designers. …

“Its creators say the Music Haul’s main mission is to bring world-class concert performances to the most unlikely of places: schools, underserved neighborhoods, hospitals, perhaps even prisons.

” ‘We exist in the world as musicians that is in a way so finely controlled and tuned,’ said Yellow Barn’s artistic director, Seth Knopp. ‘Music Haul removes some of the ceremony, which can be a barrier for people who are not often exposed to that world. There’s an element of taking something out of its accustomed place and allowing it to take people by surprise.’ ”

What a good thought! Reminds me how you can suddenly start seeing the pictures on your walls again if you move them to a new location in the house.

Read more about this enchanting initiative here.

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Do you know about the “Great Animal Orchestra“? Rachel Donadio at the NY Times has the story.

“The bioacoustician and musician Bernie Krause has been recording soundscapes of the natural world since 1968, from coral reefs to elephant stamping grounds to the Amazonian rain forest.

“Now, Mr. Krause’s recordings have become part of an immersive new exhibition at the Cartier Foundation here called ‘The Great Animal Orchestra.’ Named after Mr. Krause’s 2012 book of the same title, the show opens on Saturday and runs through Jan. 8, [2017].

“At its heart is a work by the London-based collective United Visual Artists, who have transformed Mr. Krause’s recordings of the natural world into 3-D renderings. Imagine stepping into a soundproofed black-box theater whose walls spring to life with what look like overlapping electrocardiograms, representing different species’ sounds. …

“The installation includes recordings Mr. Krause made in Algonquin Park in Ontario, where he found himself caught between two packs of wolves; in the Yukon Delta, a subarctic area in Alaska, where birds from different continents converge; and in the Central African Republic, where he heard monkeys. He also captured the cacophony of the Amazon, and whales off Alaska and Hawaii. …

“Mr. Krause is a polymathic musician who performed with the folk group the Weavers and helped introduce the Moog synthesizer to pop music — including songs by the Doors and Van Morrison — and film scores. He hears natural sounds with a studio producer’s ear.”

Read more here about Krause and his efforts to get the word out on the disappearing habitats of his featured animals.

This article inspires me to pay better attention to the music of the natural world on my morning walks. So much beauty goes right over my head.

Photo: Tim Chapman
Bernie Krause on St. Vincent Island, Fla., in 2001.
 

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I liked this story from the “People Making a Difference” series at the Christian Science Monitor. It’s about refugee musicians in Europe finding one another and bringing beauty and deeper understanding to their new countries.

Isabelle de Pommereau writes, “On a March evening in Berlin, bassist Raed Jazbeh and other musicians play the melancholic tones of ‘Sea Waves’ by Syrian composer MAias Alyamani. Mr. Alyamani wrote the song a decade ago after leaving his homeland, ‘to hold in my mind a piece from my country in my music.’

“Now, with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees flooding Germany, ‘Sea Waves’ takes on new meaning.

“Mr. Jazbeh himself fled Syria three years ago, as war tore it apart. So did many of the other musicians – also Syrians – performing ‘Sea Waves.’ Some had risked their lives and lost their instruments crossing Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea and then trekking into Europe.

“Jazbeh is the one who brought these musicians together. Last fall, he created the world’s first philharmonic orchestra of Syrian musicians in exile, reuniting the violinists and harpists, percussionists and trumpet players …

“The Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra (SEPO) has been giving Syrians and Germans a chance to connect in a fresh way, around music. The ensemble is helping to shatter stereotypical images of refugees, instead offering a portrayal of them as hardworking, creative people who have much to contribute to society. …

“Jazbeh grew up in the city of Aleppo, in northern Syria, with music at the center of his life. … After he landed at a refugee center in Bremen, he played chamber music for friends and at community centers. [He also] began looking for friends from his days at the Damascus conservatory. ‘Facebook was so important,’ he notes.

“Gradually, he found them. In Italy. Sweden. The Netherlands. France. …

“In all, about 30 Syrian musicians came together for that first concert. ‘It was very emotional,’ Jazbeh remembers. …

“ ‘The music touched my heart,’ said concertgoer Abdulrhman Hamdan, fighting back tears. At home, in Damascus, he had had to stop his engineering studies. He arrived in Berlin last winter after a journey by foot, bus, and boat.

“ ‘It makes me feel sad and happy,’ he added. ‘On the one hand, the music [evoked the] war. On the other hand, it was hope that there is peace again.’ ”

Read how the concert changed the impressions of one German audience member here.

Photo: Isabelle de Pommereau
Raed Jazbeh, a Syrian refugee, had to play a borrowed instrument until an anonymous German donor sent him this double bass as a gift.

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